A “recipe” for how to do it right
jason raish illustration
My energetic Generation Z upstairs neighbors with whom I share a yard recently built a compost bin out of old wooden pallets. They were thrilled to show it to me as they drank from their stainless steel BPA-free water bottles and posted images of the bin on social media. But two weeks into the project, it became quite clear that this compost pile was merely a gathering place for flies, pesky pests and a wide variety of rodents and it smelled horrible. The neighbors were putting only their kitchen waste in the bin.
This backyard experience got me reminiscing of past compost piles during the golden age of my gardening in the ’70s. One pile in particular stands out. My then-husband brought it home after visiting a feed mill on a day they happened to be cleaning their silos. He’d loaded our pickup truck to the brim with a fermenting mixture of feed and seed. For months that compost pile shimmered and steamed and its sickeningly sweet fetid scent wafted on every breeze. It did eventually make the best compost ever but I learned that having a good recipe for compost is essential.
Some historians believe that Marcus Cato the Elder invented the first compost formula. In his book, De Agri Cultura, which was published around 214 B.C., he shared his compost recipe. It called for mixing oak leaves with animal manure and burying it in trenches around crops such as olive trees. In Colonial American times, recipes for compost involved mixing 10 parts “muck,” a mixture of mud and animal manure, with one part fish.
The rise of the industrial age saw many farmers forsake traditional compost recipes in favor of synthetic chemical fertilizers. However, chemical fertilizers have caused groundwater contamination, soil depletion and acidification and other grave environmental problems. Problems so serious that the United Nations has declared 2015 to be the “International Year of Soils.”
Fall is a great time to start composting, as there are plenty of ingredients available from your yard and garden and, of course, kitchen waste. So here’s my recipe for a backyard compost.
The ingredients are simple: nitrogen and carbon with a ratio of one part nitrogen to three parts carbon. You will also need water, just enough to moisten the pile.
For the best results combine and layer all of your ingredients. Don’t keep adding ingredients to the bin. Every time a new ingredient is added to the pile, the decomposition process starts over. That’s why it is a good idea to have two piles going at the same time. Use one pile to collect the ingredients and a second pile that is engaged in the composting process.
Stir the pile about every five to seven days. Stirring replenishes foods and oxygen for the microorganisms that are hard at work breaking down the ingredients. You want your pile to have heat is because it helps the ingredients quickly decompose and it destroys disease-causing pathogens as well as pests, seeds and weeds.
There are also numerous compost bins at your disposals from homemade such as the one in my backyard to commercial bins. To make it easy to aerate the spinning compost bins can be helpful and if you have the income you can even get an automatic indoor composter or vermicomposter that uses worms.
Composting is well worth the effort when you consider that the average U.S. household generates 650 pounds of compostable materials each year and 60 percent of what we put in our landfills is organic waste.
Composting will save you money and it makes the world a healthier and greener space.
Nitrogen can consist of: stable waste such as horse, rabbit, pig, goat or chicken manure; fishmeal; blood meal; cottonseed meal; legumes
such as alfalfa and pea clover; green garden waste; algae and seaweed; coffee grounds and filters; algae; hair; kitchen vegetable scraps; grass clippings
Carbon components can consist of: straw; dried leaves; sawdust in small amounts, (as long as it hasn’t been treated with chemicals); untreated wood chips in small amounts; shredded newspaper; shredded cardboard; dryer lint; corn stalks and corncob; shredded brown paper grocery bags; pine needles and pine cones; oak leaves; eggshells; peanut shells
What NOT to add to a compost pile: bone; cat litter; diseased plants; pernicious weeds; charcoal; cooked food waste; dairy products; fatty, oily greasy food; peanut butter; meat; glossy or colored paper; inorganic materials such as aluminum foil, glass, plastics and metals.